This year’s Super Bowl, scheduled for February 11, will make history as the first one played in Las Vegas. But the Big Game also marks a turning point for ATSC 3.0, a standard also referred to as NextGen TV, with the technology finally reaching three-quarters of the U.S. population.
Not that three-quarters of the U.S. will be watching the Super Bowl – or anything – on NextGen TV. Between the lack of compatible devices and general awareness, the next-generation of over-the-air broadcast TV isn’t on the radar of too many people.
But that’s poised to change. The broad reach – in addition to 75% of the population, it will also be available in 75 markets with the addition of Chicago, San Diego, and Tucson, Arizona – gives the national networks, retailers, and the local stations more incentive to fly the NextGen TV flag more loudly and proudly.
“That is the critical mass point that they were waiting for, because you look at two years ago, how come the network’s aren’t excited? BestBuy is not excited? How come we don’t see the logo in the stores? Well, because the product wasn’t available in enough markets,” Madeleine Noland, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, told Cord Cutters News last week at CES 2024. “Now, we’re to the point where it’s available in enough markets that the network’s are leaning in and you can see the major sports logos over there (pointing to the conference booth).”
About 5.5 million NextGen TV-enabled television sets are expected to ship this year, a rise of 13% from the number of TVs that shipped in 2023, according to the Consumer Technology Association, the group behind CES. The ATSC believes sales will really hit the masses in 2025.
It hasn’t been a smooth road for NextGen TV. Questions arose about its viability after LG stopped offering an ATSC 3.0 tuner in its TVs, citing a patent dispute with a company that alleged the Korean consumer electronics giant infringed on its technology. There also remained questions about how it handles its digital rights management, a form of encryption some critics believe takes control of content away from users. (My colleague Luke Bouma has a good breakdown of all the concerns here.)
The ATSC was at CES 2024 to show off some of the new features of NextGen TV, and address some of the concerns that have plagued the standard.
Tackling the Biggest Concerns
One of the biggest concerns is the integration of DRM into the ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, which has led to fears that digital recordings might be restricted or you would need a persistent online connection to access the video.
The ATSC addressed both with the introduction of the Zinwell ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV tuner, which comes out in February with a retail price of $149. Anne Schelle, managing director of Pearl TV, which is a group made up of broadcast TV companies investing in new technology, like ATSC 3.0, said that she expects more devices going forward to include both offline capabilities and support for DRM.
A lot of the holdup has been because of the lack of components, particularly with the TV tuner category, she added.
One curveball thrown at ATSC was LG’s decision to hit pause of adding NextGen TV tuners into its TVs, thanks to a company that successfully sued LG, alleging that its implementation of ATSC 3.0 violated its patents. The move spooked the industry, suggesting the ATSC 3.0 standard was somehow vulnerable to legal challenges. But at CES, TCL announced that it was adding NextGen TV tuners to its two most-expensive sets, and Samsung, Sony, and Hisense all continue to sell TVs with the technology.
LG declined to comment, only pointing to a letter it filed with the Federal Communications Commission in September urging the agency to look at how patents are treated in situations where they’re used in a standard.
Another concern has been whether the DRM will restrict your ability to record your program either at home or remotely. Schelle said some of those capabilities will be determined by the device maker, but noted that ATSC 3.0’s DRM isn’t designed to restrict that.
To Schelle, having DRM was the integral to having access to broadcast content – particularly sports – with more vivid HDR quality and Dolby audio technology.
“It was always part of the standard because we knew if we want to do high value content for free over the air, we would never be able to do it (without DRM),” she said. “It would only go to streaming.”
New Bells and Whistles
The high-quality video and audio capabilities of NextGen TV were front and center at the ATSC booth, with large televisions showing crisp, high contrast video of tennis and football games. One demo showed the immersive sound and video enhancements using Dolby technology, all found in a feed broadcast for free over the air.
“There’s so much we do here, but we’re starting simply as we’re starting to get consumers used to it,” Schelle said.
More interesting were the more interactive elements of NextGen TV, including the ability to pause, rewind, and start a program over. ROXi, a music video service that launched at CES and will be available on streaming and on NextGen TV, offered an even more robust demonstration of its app-like capabilities, allowing you to browse different music channels and skip music videos during its “broadcast TV” experience.
In all of these cases, the interactive elements will rely on a sly switch to IP-based channels (which is why that internet connection is so handy). If you pause or rewind a channel, the system actually pulls up a carbon copy of that program, but from the internet, allowing you to replay the show or movie despite it already moving in real-time over broadcast TV. When you’re done with the program, the system sends you back to the OTA feed, without you realizing it.
These kinds of features are already available in Europe, Noland said. She noted that the ability to start over a program is seen as the killer app for those users.
Between the higher quality video and audio and interactive elements, Noland hopes that is enough to justify making the switch.
But the move doesn’t come without a cost.
Getting ATSC 1.0, or your standard OTA broadcast, just requires an antenna. But with NextGen TV, you’ll either need a compatible tuner or TV.
Buying a new TV or even a tuner, which could run $149, as evidenced by that Zinwell model, isn’t cheap. It flies in the face of the notion that OTA TV should be free.
The ATSC is looking at Brazil, which is expected to also embrace ATSC 3.0 later this year, as a potential driver of demand for cheaper tuners. The hope is that the higher volume created by Brazil – in which 60% of its users view OTA television – will bring prices down everywhere through the economy of scale.
Schelle said she wants to get the price down to a $50 box.
At that point, it might be time to consider whether NextGen TV is right for you.
Correction: The previous story incorrectly said that Schelle wanted to get the price of the box down to $15.